How to Boost Holiday Safety With Home Automation

A few days ago I accidentally left my space heater on when I left for work, and then rushed home once I remembered. It seemed smart to be cautious: Many space heaters have new safety features built in, but they still cause one third of house fires, according to the National Fire Protection Association.  

If I installed a few smart devices at home, I'd never have to worry about this sort of thing again. These gadgets include connected outlets that let you turn off your iron or television from anywhere, sensors that tell you if there’s a gas or water leak, and smart hubs that let you control them all from anywhere. Many of these gadgets require almost zero handyman skills and are completely portable.

This is a great time of year to be thinking of home automation. As the holidays approach, people start plugging in more devices, from Christmas lights to electric blankets.

Like my space heater, these should generally be turned off before you leave home, but it's also the season when harried families rush off to visit relatives in distant cities. That leaves lots of opportunities for appliances to remain on and unattended longer than they should. And it makes home automation gear a worthy investment for yourself, or a smart gift for both homeowners and renters.

One thing to remember: Like other connected devices, all of these home automation products send data across the Internet. Here's where you can learn more about the potential privacy and security concerns.

Belkin: Quick and Cheap

Belkin’s WeMo Insight Switch ($59.99) is a smart outlet that gives any normal power outlet an Internet connection. To use the Belkin WeMo Insight Switch, you need to download the iOS or Android app, plug in the smart outlet, and connect it to your Wi-Fi network. From there you can set schedules and timers for your Insight Switch (or multiple compatible devices). For example, you can use the Belkin app to tell your Insight Switch to turn your space heater on every weekday at sunset, and off at 6 a.m.

If you forget whether you shut off a device, you can check on your connected appliances from anywhere your smartphone has an internet connection, making it more useful than similar outlets that you can only control if you’re home.

Compatible devices, such as Belkin’s wireless cameras, can trigger other connected devices (for instance, the Insight Switch) to turn on or off when someone arrives home, or when motion is detected in a room. Belkin’s WeMo products are best for people who want to monitor one or two devices, or who just want the lights off at the same time every night.

Insteon: iOS-Oriented Hub

If you want to keep an eye on more of your home than the Belkin system will allow, you’re going to have to venture into smart hub territory. And Insteon is a particularly good place to start if you’re an Apple fan.

The Insteon Hub ($79.99) can manage multiple connected sensors from your Windows Phone, iOS, or Android device. To get started, plug the Hub into your router and download the corresponding smartphone app, which lets you set up rules that affect multiple appliances or lights simultaneously. One rule could dim all lights, turn off the television, and lock the front door. You can keep track of all your connected devices by room as well, letting you control every device in the living room without messing with the lights in the kitchen.

In addition to smart outlets that work much like Belkin’s WeMo Insight Switch, you can pair other sensors to the Insteon Hub to beef up security and safety. Insteon-compatible smoke detectors, motion sensors, water leak sensors, and door-opening sensors can pair to the Hub.

You can program the Insteon Hub to alert you if motion is detected or a door is opened while you’re away. Water leak sensors can be placed under sinks or near water tanks so you can avoid being surprised by a flooded kitchen or basement, and you can use the smoke detector sensor to unlock all doors and turn on all lights in case of an emergency.

Insteon also sells the Insteon Hub Pro ($149.99), which only works with iOS devices. It doesn’t support a few of Insteon’s old sensors, but it is compatible with Apple’s HomeKit, letting you control your smart outlets or other HomeKit-enabled devices with Siri.

When you’re ready to pack up and go to your next home, you can just pick up the Insteon sensors, unplug the smart outlets, and set up shop somewhere new.

Samsung SmartThings: Versatile Choice

If you don’t care about telling Siri to turn down the lights, or you have devices that aren’t supported by Insteon, consider Samsung’s SmartThings series of connected devices. Samsung’s SmartThings is similar to the Insteon Hub. Plug the required hub ($99) into your router, download the Windows Phone, iOS, or Android app, and pair your devices. There’s a smart outlet ($54.99) that lets you control appliances anywhere, a water leak sensor ($39.99), and even a temperature and humidity sensor for any temperature-sensitive areas (like the kitchen).

It’s compatible with a substantially larger variety of products, including sirens, smoke detectors, Philips Hue bulbs, and Sonos speakers. In case of a fire, you can tell your lights to flash red, siren to blare, and speakers to turn off. SmartThings’ multitude of plug-and-play sensors makes it easy to set up or take down anywhere.

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